Resolving intractable conflict boils down to one simple term: trust-building. Building trust between the various sides is what Ian Martin's new UN mission will be doing for the foreseeable future. The task ahead is difficult for many reasons.
The Maoist militia is one. The intent of the palace and army intention is another. Do-good but ignorant donors could also add to the complexities involved.
But spoilers can emerge from among us too. Unintended consequences of good intentions (partisan pressure from civil society, for example) and ignorance among the seven parties of the mechanics of negotiations could be just as disruptive.
The history of conflict resolution is littered with examples of innocent players unknowingly derailing the process. The immediate difficulties though lie in two key areas: little trust in the government's negotiating team, and almost non-existent civil-military relations.
Sitaula's failing tightrope:
The first difficulty is right near the top, in home minister and chief government negotiator Krishna Prasad Sitaula. His job requires good personal relations with his Maoist counterpart Krishna Bahadur Mahara. The two Krishnas have, by all accounts, developed a good partnership. But this is also eroding Sitaula's base within his own party and the alliance. More importantly, he has alienated powerful members of Prime Minister Koirala's inner circle. Many see him as giving away too much to the Maoists without proper discussion.
He had a difficult job to begin with. It's even harder now because Maoist militia are intent on wrecking the notion of law and order, his primary task as Home Minister. "He seems a nice person, but lacks the maturity to do this tightrope walk," says an experienced peace adviser, "he is losing his base."
This perception is undercutting Sitaula's authority with the Maoists, who have gained concessions at his expense. A recent example, critics say, is the UN-brokered agreement which gave the Maoists what they wanted: confinement of the Nepal Army within barracks and no separation of Maoist arms from their PLA. It won't be surprising if Sitaula ends up as the fall guy in the near future.
All sides dread negotiating from a position of weakness. For the seven parties this is even tougher because they already suffer from being perceived as lacking full control over the Nepal Army. Worse, many politicians also lack knowledge of the mechanics of conflict resolution, particularly the fact that arms and weapons do have a role in finding a political settlement.
Despite repeated army proclamations of loyalty to the civilian government, the alliance's hold is still tenuous. "Nothing has changed as far as the army is concerned," says a foreign conflict analyst, "it's still doing what it wants, as it wants."
That may not be wholly true, as human rights violations and disappearances by the army have dwindled in the last four months. But the army still acts with impunity and is intent on protecting its way of life. Right now, that translates into protecting its chain of command, budgets and lucrative UN peace-keeping operations. A smart government can leverage these wants into cooperation and loyalty. But to do this, it must begin by listening to the army.
The chain of command army officers talk about do not necessarily include the king, they say. It means the generals at the top. "We will abide by the constitutional arrangements," says a top army general. "But the politicians will be playing with fire if they remove one general for another, much like they have done with the police. There will be a revolt in the army if the chain of command is touched."
This indicates a degree of vulnerability in the army's ranks-the recipe for a military coup. Asked if a military takeover is possible in this transition phase, another senior army officer says: "Whatever the politicians do, they must not make the army feel vulnerable and threatened. I may not do anything, but how can I guarantee that some aggrieved or ambitious officer down the line won't?"
Given the domestic and international situation and the complete loss of UN peace-keeping dollars if a coup were to be launched, this is probably a bluff. But there is a message to the seven party government: durable peace can only be attained through a political settlement. But for that it needs a loyal and strong army. But to get a loyal army though, you need to build trust. The Maoists will take the government seriously only if it is backed by a strong army.
The challenge now is how to build trust with an army that has historically served a regressive monarchy? Our chances of peace rest on finding an answer to this question.